to a secret campaign to acquire the technology needed to produce nuclear weapons. Washington Post
Editorials, Page A20
HIGH ON THE list of issues so far absent from this year's presidential campaign debate is Iran, home to a militant Islamic regime that openly sponsors terrorism, foments anti-American resistance in Iraq and has confessed to a secret campaign to acquire the technology needed to produce nuclear weapons. The winner of November's election may well face the question, during the next four years, of whether to acquiesce in Iran's achievement of a nuclear capability or take dramatic action to prevent it. Yet it's no wonder that neither President Bush nor John F. Kerry is eager to talk about it: Neither has developed a convincing plan for avoiding that dilemma.
The fecklessness of Mr. Bush's policy can be seen in his failure to achieve its principal objective over the last year: referral of Iran's violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to the U.N. Security Council. The administration's attempt to persuade major European allies and other concerned states to back such a step by the International Atomic Energy Agency board failed again at the board's meeting last week; despite Iran's breach of its previous commitments to the IAEA and to the governments of Britain, Germany and France, the Europeans are inclined to pursue further negotiations and new Iranian promises. This defeat is, in part, the product of a half-hearted U.S. effort. Over nearly four years administration policymakers have never resolved an internal dispute over whether to pursue a diplomatic solution to the Iranian threat or back the destabilization and eventual overthrow of the regime.
While the Bush team has feuded and dithered, the prospect of a democratic revolution in Iran has steadily dimmed as clerical hard-liners have succeeded in suppressing rebellious students and eliminating would-be reformers from parliament and the media. That development, in turn, has made it less likely that Western pressure or inducements will succeed: Most of Iran's hard-liners, unlike the reformers, oppose engagement with the West. The Europeans who pursued negotiations with Tehran over the past year have been deceived and rebuffed in their pursuit of a "grand bargain" with the mullahs. Yet leeriness of the Bush administration's continued toying with options for "regime change" is one reason U.S. allies won't back a referral to the Security Council.
Mr. Kerry's alternative is to embrace the bargaining approach of the Europeans, along with an unfreezing of U.S.-Iranian relations. That strategy at least has the advantage of being internally consistent, and as vice presidential candidate John Edwards recently pointed out, Mr. Bush's refusal to negotiate has yielded only a steady advance of the Iranian nuclear program during the past four years. But Mr. Kerry's proposal assumes that the failed European tactic of engagement with Iran could be converted to success, despite the ascendance of anti-Western hard-liners -- and that it could be done before Iran completes its race to acquire all the elements it needs to produce nuclear bombs on its own. Some experts believe could happen within a year, rendering any possible bargain moot.
It may be that Western missteps and the failure of the pro-democracy movement has made a crisis with Iran inevitable. If it is to be avoided, the best chance probably lies between the Bush and Kerry positions: enlistment of the Europeans and Russia in a strategy of mounting pressure and sanctions against Iran that leaves open the option of military preemption but also security guarantees for a regime that abandons nuclear weapons and terrorism. What's sure is that November's winner will not have the choice of treading water on Iran for another four years -- which is why voters deserve to hear more about it.